What is Jewish about anti-poverty work?

byJon Hornstein, Program Director |

As the Foundation’s lead on the National Affinity Group on Jewish Poverty—which includes funders, service providers, and others dedicated to fighting poverty in the American Jewish community—I am often asked about the “Jewish” in Jewish poverty. What is Jewish about anti-poverty work? Why is it important to focus on providing direct services within the Jewish community to complement broader efforts? And what might the Jewish nonprofit sector contribute to the fight against poverty in the United States and beyond?

There are many perspectives and answers to these questions, and I will share my thoughts on them in a series of blog posts over the coming months. Since Rosh Hashanah kicks off the Jewish high holiday season next Sunday, it is timely to start with the first question: What is Jewish about anti-poverty work?

As Rabbi Jill Jacobs discusses in her seminal work There Shall be No Needy, the ancient texts of the Jewish tradition hold timeless wisdom for addressing poverty. Many of these texts underpin the principles and values of our work at The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation. These values are universal ones shared by the diversity of faiths, backgrounds, and perspectives represented among Foundation staff and can shed light for all on how we do our work.

The Jewish approach to anti-poverty work is grounded in two biblical phrases in Deuteronomy:

  1. There shall be no needy among you. (15:4)
  2. If, however, there is a needy person among you…do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kin. Rather, you must open your hand and lend whatever is sufficient to meet the need. (15:7)

In this blog post, I will talk about how the mission, values, and focus areas of the Weinberg Foundation connect with the themes in these short, but incredibly rich, sentences.

While we primarily fund direct services, we also seek opportunities to support sustainable change. The texts above present an inherent paradox. How can there be a needy person among you if, as the first sentence states, there shall be no needy among you?

I glean two ideas from this. First, our goal must be clear and unwavering: to end poverty. There shall be no needy among you. Yet despite our best efforts, there may always be people among us who are struggling. Poverty is persistent and pernicious, and the road to eliminating it is long.

Many would advocate for choosing to focus on either direct services for people currently struggling or on resolving the root issues that cause people to fall into poverty in the first place. However, as Rabbi Jacobs notes, choosing between the two is a false dichotomy. Although we must provide for short-term needs, we must never take our eye off the North Star.

Our founder, Harry Weinberg, understood this clearly. In his words: “While others are finding the cures for all the ills of the world, someone will be hungry, someone will be cold. That’s our job.” Indeed, this has been our job since the Foundation was established in 1990. We support agencies that provide direct services for those in need, while always taking steps toward ending poverty more broadly. That’s why we launched the National Affinity Group on Jewish Poverty with Jewish Funders Network—to raise awareness about the root causes of poverty, lift up effective solutions, and keep the Jewish community focused on that North Star.

While we first address basic needs, we also foster economic mobility. Direct services may start with a warm meal and a place to sleep, but the end goal is economic independence—for all people to be self-sustaining and chart their future. Older adults should be able to age independently in their own homes. People with disabilities should be able to live and work in their communities, as do the graduates of Foundation grantee Sunflower Bakery, a kosher bakery in Maryland that trains young adults with disabilities in pastry arts and hospitality.

Notice, in the second text above, the Torah states that we should “lend” funds, rather than give them. Rambam, one of the foremost Jewish scholars, says the highest level of charity is “strengthening the hand of a fellow [person] by giving a gift or a loan or entering into partnership with them.” Several Foundation efforts are aligned with Rambam’s teaching, including grants to support job training and tools to help people build a career, savings, and assets.

While we focus on the communities closest to us, we also reserve funds for national priorities. The biblical text uses the words “your needy kin.” Yet how should we define “kin”? Many Jewish texts warn against only giving to one’s family, so we can infer that “kin” means one’s community. Jewish texts prioritize giving to the Jewish community and directing charity more broadly. They also support giving where one lives and in communities farther away. The Foundation directs a significant portion of funding toward its priority communities, including the Jewish communities in the United States and in Israel. Simultaneously, the Foundation focuses nationally on older adults and rural communities.

Above all else, we prioritize the dignity of those we serve. Perhaps the key lesson from the word “kin” relates to how we should treat those among us who live in poverty. These are our fellow kin in humanity, and they deserve to be treated with dignity; after all, we could one day face our own difficulties.

The Weinberg Foundation emphasizes this principle in its work. The Foundation supported UJA-Federation of New York in developing digital pantries, which allow clients to preorder food through a mobile app. This means they do not have to wait in long lines, and they can choose the foods they want to eat—everyday privileges we can take for granted.

As we consider other new models in direct services, we must always strive to lead with dignity and respect. This is one of the Foundation’s enduring commitments.

Jewish values are not the only ones that inform the Foundation’s grantmaking, and one can interpret these values in different ways. However, what is clear is that anti-poverty work is deeply Jewish, and that Jewish texts may provide additional meaning, wisdom, and inspiration to the important mission of fighting poverty and bolstering economic mobility. I welcome you to reach out via email to continue the conversation.

From all of us at the Foundation, we wish you a shana tova u’metukah—a happy, sweet, and healthy new year to you and yours.